Cracks in the glass: living through the second wave

I’ve felt sad about a lot of things this year, and Gucci’s broken front window doesn’t make the list.

Just over two weeks ago, protests in Turin, where I live, briefly provided the kind of images that travel internationally: fireworks, smoke bombs, a little tear gas. In one shot, there was a burning pile of the shared electric scooters that have become as ubiquitous as face masks lately. Groups of cops shuffled along in shields and helmets, circled by the smoke. As Italy slides into another lockdown, as the second wave of coronavirus infections crashes over Europe, there is no disputing that the mood is different. But to describe the protests as uniformly ‘anti-lockdown’ would be a simplification.

That Monday night, as a 6pm closure of bars and restaurants was introduced, two separate snap-organised protests gathered in two of Turin’s main piazzas. One was made up mostly of restauranteurs, business owners and hospitality workers; the other, a more eclectic mix, including people thrust into unemployment, those calling for more social welfare measures, young people, and a smattering of Covid denialists. I didn’t go to either, but I was heading home from class half an hour before they started, and there was a tense energy in the city.

The day after the protests, reports of organised members of the far right (‘ultras’) taking advantage of the situation were rife; many complained that the ‘violence’ (read: property destruction) detracted from more ‘legitimate’ grievances. Blaming the ultras became so prevalent that at the following Friday’s demonstrations in Florence, protesters chanted ‘We’re not fascists, we want to work!’ Those protests, like others in Rome, Naples and Milan, also ended in property damage. But the people that broke Turin’s luxury shop windows and stole the ugly, overpriced clothes on display just looked like kids to me. They were naive enough to film themselves and post the video online.

Now there are extra police watching the boutique shops that line Via Roma, a boulevard of luxury brands where many unhoused people shelter under the elegant colonnades, rugged up against the approaching winter. The street is an emblem of inequality, the underlying crisis that Italy has left largely unaddressed. Now there is a nationwide 10pm curfew, but the police leave the unhoused be at night. There is nowhere else for them to go.

In hindsight, the first wave seems motivating. I like to think that I was galvanised by the shock and fear into what seemed a useful action at the time: writing about it. Whether my email records and publication history bear this out is questionable. But I do know it feels different this time. The slow approach of Covid-19’s second wave has been numbing. It’s harder to articulate its impacts. For weeks I’ve been stunned out of my usual productivity, in the grip of a miniature version of a much larger paralysis.

If the months of March, April and May tested Italy’s social care, public-spiritedness and sense of solidarity, October and November are testing its patience. All summer the government kept telling us that there would be no new national lockdown. Since September, a lockdown has felt inevitable. As the numbers escalated, the L word began to reappear in the mouths of public health officials, regional governors and finally the prime minister. Regional and national lawmakers argued over whether and how to impose restrictions. What seemed at first like a more nuanced approach began to resemble a repeat of earlier mistakes as throughout October the numbers rose to out-of-control levels. Prime Minister Conte, resisting a full lockdown, wants to give the latest restrictions time to show an effect, but it’s a huge gamble – if it turns out they’re not enough, precious time will have been lost. An insecure government that found consensus in an emergency is struggling to maintain it under the second wave’s more sustained pressure.

Medical experts are increasingly frustrated by these hesitations. The weekend before last, the Italian Order of Doctors formally called for a total nationwide lockdown to avoid a projected toll of ten thousand deaths this month as hospital intensive care and emergency wards are again overwhelmed.

Summer restored life and joy to Italy, brought back movement and the unassailable tradition of August holidays. I, too, fell under its spell, taking the second wave too lightly, preparing for it half-heartedly, failing to resist the temptation to hope. As soon as the cooler weather arrived, the numbers began to crawl upward. And now I’m asking myself how it is that I am shocked by something we all saw coming. How is it that, weeks after the WHO congratulated Italy on its coronavirus response, the country is again unprepared? As with the ongoing climate emergency, I wonder if the predictability of these events makes any difference at all to our capacity to face them.

As I write, we’re a few days into ‘soft lockdown’ here in Piedmont, one of the half-dozen regions that have been declared a red zone. Turin’s ghostly quality is again enhanced by its near desertion. Sirens have returned to the soundscape, images of hospital wards to the front pages, and the masks – compulsory outdoors – are once again hiding our faces. Even the self-certification form is back. The repetition makes for an uncanny déjà-vu.

This lockdown is (so far) not as harsh as the first. There’s more freedom of movement. The elementary and early middle schools are still open, as are many shops, parks, and markets. Theatres and cinemas, galleries and museums have closed, and shopping malls are shuttered on the weekends, but farms, factories and construction sites are still going. The psychological challenge lies in the fact that, this time, we can anticipate its long extension, its slow impact on our lives.

Many Italians spent their savings in the first wave, and some businesses that survived the spring are closing permanently. In my neighbourhood, the flags proclaiming that andrà tutto bene (‘everything will be all right’) have faded. Posters have appeared announcing the opening of an aid office for hospitality employees, many of whom are precarious workers struggling to access government support. Whether or not we go deeper into lockdown will not make much difference to their incomes now – the second wave of the virus will hurt the economy either way.

The government is in an unenviable position. If the restrictions are traumatic, then a repeat of spring’s death toll will be even more so, and this eventuality looks more likely with each passing day. Nobody wants to be responsible for either the deaths or the lockdown, so regional and national governments have been engaging in a long game of buck-passing. The system of red, orange and yellow zones is a compromise; some regions are disputing their status. This unpredictable environment of indecision and rapidly changing rules is distressing in itself, and frustrating for health care workers.

Yesterday, the call for more stringent measures was resoundingly supported by a range of other medical organisations. ‘We are very late and can no longer witness this bouncing of responsibility between the regions and the government,’ said Carlo Palermo, leader of the hospital doctors’ union. The head of the Italian Order of Nurses in Napoli, Ciro Carbone, declared that by now the number of infected nurses is already out of control. Others are describing the second wave as a tsunami, as once again the hospital system is becoming overwhelmed.

In March, the country was taken by surprise. Amongst the horror of the pandemic’s first wave, morale was lifted by displays of national unity, singing from balconies, and so on. But this time, many are asking why those already worst off have taken so much of the weight. Why are essential workers still under-resourced? And why, with so many limitations, should labour be the only activity we deem vital? It is hypocritical to celebrate solidarity and civic duty when only a portion of society is required to make sacrifices. Even while understanding the necessity of restrictions, it’s hard not to sympathise with protesters.

More income support is announced each week, but it’s a trickle; some of the assistance promised in the spring is yet to materialise. While wealthy Italians are able to prepare, retreating to their country homes or isolating in comfort, others are looking at months in overcrowded housing, without work or a predictable income. The fear of the unknown that dominated in March has been replaced by the heavy exhaustion of the known. The pandemic’s rigorous social stress test continues to find flaws, and cracks which could be covered over in April and May are reappearing.

Here in Turin, the protests are becoming smaller and more specific. The flags of the nurses’ union are a regular sight, as they once again struggle with inadequate PPE and excessive working hours. Roadies have filled the piazza with amps and equipment. Taxi drivers filled it with cars. Even the poets had a demonstration about the impact of closed performance spaces. On Saturday, a few hundred people gathered in Piazza Castello to demand better social support, joining a rising call for the current means-tested citizen’s income scheme to be extended to a universal basic income. There were almost as many police in attendance as protesters. As one speaker pointed out, money for cops can always be found, even while people are going hungry. One banner read: ‘The Gucci window is worth more than a generation without a future. Let the rich pay for this crisis.’

That the rich should pay for the crisis is a sentiment echoed in much of the graffiti appearing around town.

For all the frustration, most Italians I speak to accept this new lockdown-lite with resignation. The necessity of a strong response is more broadly understood now, and the fact that France, Spain and other neighbouring countries are also suffering has lifted some of the vague shame that the first wave bestowed on Italy. Pandemic fatigue is hitting everyone hard; most of us can only imagine what frontline health care workers are going through. But at the end of the day, the virus doesn’t care how tired we are. It doesn’t care if we think we have suffered enough. The virus doesn’t have a front window that anyone can break in anger. Instead, it’s we that feel its slow, inexorable, uneven impact. While some can brace themselves against it, others are wondering if this time, they’ll be left to fall.


All images by the author


Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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